Right Place, Right Time, Right Person

August 10, 2011
Contact:

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu

By Diana Nelson

Marcia Toledo Sotillo MEM/MF ’02 believes that certain things are meant to be.

Finding herself at a large group dinner in June 2002 in Raleigh seated next to congresswoman Fabiola Morales Castillo from her native Peru, Toledo could not believe her luck. Morales was at the time the incoming president of the government’s Ecology and Environment Commission (EEC), the congressional body that develops and adopts environmental law in Peru. They talked and exchanged contact information.

“Life is made of many things, and for me courage and fate play key roles,” explains Toledo Sotillo, who goes by Toledo. “I was eager to return home after graduation but stayed in North Carolina for one month of vacation because my boyfriend at the time was employed there. He was invited to a political dinner for his work, and I did not want to go, he had to talk me into joining him.”

Upon her return to Peru, Toledo met again with Morales, who was so impressed by her education and background that she created a new position of environmental technical advisor just for her. In this role, Toledo educated commission members— some with little science background, others with none—about technical environmental terms and issues and helped them prioritize goals within key areas of focus such as mining, solid waste disposal, fisheries, conservation and social responsibility issues.

“I was not sure at first that I was totally prepared to be the technical advisor to the politicians who actually make the decisions about environmental law and policy in Peru,” she says. “I knew the challenge was great, but also I knew I had to embrace the opportunity to make a difference and go for it.”

Because EEC leadership changes each year, time was of the essence. In her role, Toledo organized and managed a comprehensive program funded by the Netherlands Cooperation Agency that strengthened the institutional capacity of the EEC through the creation of improved communication and information exchange capabilities. She arranged workshops and town meetings across the country among constituents, scientists, economists, consultants and politicians to promote awareness and open dialogue about key environmental issues, and recorded their outcomes and feedback for consideration in the design of the General Environmental Law adopted two years later in 2005.

“I learned the importance of bringing together different stakeholders to improve environmental decision-making processes in Peru,” she says. “Language is important, to be able to take technical concepts and make them understandable to nontechnical people. It is important to listen, to respect different opinions and communication styles, and to be efficient in language and communication.”

Toledo credits Morales’ leadership as key to the commission’s successful term. The EEC previously worked only with legal advisors, but Morales added Toledo’s role to the commission’s permanent staff to improve understanding and communication about key technical environmental issues.

“Peru has many different cultures, different landscapes,” Toledo explains. “A lot of what is happening here in the environment is happening locally, but limited information and analysis of local land-use systems constrain national decision makers. Morales understands this, and the need for communication, and that is why we were able to make progress in outreach and awareness, and in developing the new law needed.”

A love of the jungle—and science—and people

Toledo’s interest in the environment comes naturally. Living with her parents and young sister in a small wooden house in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, She discovered at an early age the power and beauty of the environment.

“My dad used to walk me through the forest and I can remember so clearly the light coming through the thick jungle, the sounds of the insects, the moss and fungi growing everywhere, and the smell of the fresh ground after the rain,” she recalls. “Even now, I am amazed by the diversity of the tropics, its potential for sustainable development, and the high responsibility we all have not to abuse that.”

Toledo moved with her family to Lima when she was six years old to attend Catholic school. She was “not the best student,” she says, because “the curriculum was so structured, the constraints of the classroom so different” from what she was used to in the jungle.

But then she found science.

“I remember the day exactly, I was 10 years old,” she says. “We began to study science and everything became so new, there was no pattern. We could get out of the classroom and discover new things, investigate new processes and see how they work and they interlink. I wanted to uncover every detail and analyze it even more. I knew that science would be my path to follow.”

She received her undergraduate degree in 1996 from Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, a university of about 3,000 students focused on science and medicine. She completed the rigorous five-year biology degree program in just four years, recognizing that as much as she enjoyed making new discoveries in campus laboratories, she was more interested in the real-world aspects of applied science. She joined a forestry consulting group in Lima upon graduation. They wanted to put her in a lab, but she was eager to grow into a new role with new responsibilities.

“I loved the intersection of science, economics and social issues that I was exposed to as a consultant. I knew I wanted to pursue environmental management, but I had to better my education to prove that I could have those skills, too,” she says.

Secure in her new passion, she researched graduate programs at several international universities before deciding on the Nicholas School. She came to North Carolina in the fall of 1999, her first visit to the United States, to pursue a Master of Environmental Management degree at Duke.

“Durham was so much smaller of a town than Lima,” she says. “But Duke was much more diverse than my university, with all kinds of programs like economics, business, law, sports, the arts and political science. I was exposed to a new world of people, cultures and opportunities that could be interlinked with my career and personal interests.”

Toledo credits professors like John Terborgh, Dan Richter and Ram Oren with inspiring her studies at Duke, and encouraging her to pursue a Master of Forestry degree in addition to her MEM.

“The academic environment at Duke is no different for international students because a high quality of work is expected of everyone,” she says. “This pushed me to overcome the learning curve of a new experience and new language, and when Professor Terborgh suggested I stay another year to complete a joint degree in forestry, I realized that this was exactly the right thing to do. Because environmental management was the background I did not have, but forestry was an open door back to Latin America.”

Toledo chose a masters project related to Latin American environmental issues: regeneration and silvicultural treatments of mahogany, a rare, highly valued timber that has been logged almost to extinction in many Latin American countries. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) requires producer countries to define sustainable rates of harvest and limit their exports to that amount of mahogany timber. But in Peru, Toledo says, “more than 80 percent of all exported mahogany is the product of illegal logging in natural protected areas or indigenous lands” where extraction is not allowed.

“I remain very interested in the mahogany case, it is serious in Peru,” she says. “I participated in EEC meetings about illegal logging, and now a recently formed commission is working collaboratively with the many actors involved to improve law enforcement, strengthen institutional processes and raise awareness about the issue.”

Home to help shape environmental policy and management in Peru

With its coastal deserts, high Andes, and Amazonian forests, Peru is one of the world’s most environmentally diverse nations. There are 25,000 species of flora in Peru—10 percent of the global total—and an impressive array of fish life (2,000 species), bird life (second in the world at 1,760 species), amphibians (third at 315 species) and mammals (fourth at 460 species).

Over the past five decades, Peru’s environmental management framework has evolved into a large set of regulations, policies, and institutions that aim to respond to the country’s environmental concerns. Recent efforts show encouraging results, particularly in terms of reducing deforestation, advancing toward the integrated management of water resources and other environmental services, developing strategies to create incentives for conservation and natural resources management at local levels and creating one of the most consolidated systems of Natural Protected Areas in the region. Peru contains 61 protected areas that total 14 percent of the land base for the country, more than 50 million acres.

Peru’s Instituto Nacional de Recursos Naturales (INRENA) manages its system of protected areas under the Protected Natural Areas Law of 1997. Because of limited funding and other problems, INRENA lacks many of the institutional capabilities to accomplish its mandate.

Toledo experienced this lack of capabilities firsthand, and did something about it.

Upon completing her year of service with the EEC, Toledo joined the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Lima as project manager of its biodiversity portfolio, responsible for conservation projects in the high and low jungle of Peru. USAID works closely with the government of Peru to strengthen national environmental law and policy and to increase environmental awareness, understanding and demand.

“I instantly saw that INRENA had a monitoring and enforcement system that was not working,” Toledo says. “Its matrix was not being used across the protected areas, and each group implementing a conservation project used different monitoring tools that were not feeding information back into the INRENA system.”

Toledo devised a strategy for improving INRENA’s information and enforcement systems. She convened meetings for the many groups implementing conservation projects in the protected areas to promote consensus about the need for improved information sharing of baseline data, lessons learned, threats and challenges encountered. She worked with high-level political officials to secure government funding for the improvements, and within a year, her efforts led to a strengthening of the institutional and technical capacity of INRENA.

“It is often taken for granted that a government agency is inefficient, but as project managers, we cannot accept that,” Toledo says. “We have to involve, train, and design jointly with government groups systems that will work for everyone, because at the end of the day it is the agency that is making the decisions at a national level.”

Toledo points to a number of initiatives Peru is undertaking to further integrate the different elements of its environmental management framework, such as the adoption of the General Environmental Law of 2005 that she helped create through her EEC work. Among other advances, this law requires the National Environmental Council (CONAM—the official public agency in charge of all environmental compliance) to establish and publicly disclose a “Registry of Environmental Good Practices and Offenders” that will indicate entities that comply and do not comply with their environmental obligations.

“It is very satisfying to see the government acting upon the questions we first asked five years ago,” she says. “Law enforcement remains critical, as is increased awareness of the issues both within the government and among people at local levels. I am so happy to see that what used to be a small column on the last page of the newspaper is now a front page story about environmental concerns.”

After four years and a promotion to mission environmental officer responsible for regulatory compliance and coalition building across public and private groups to encourage sustainable development across Peru, Toledo left USAID in July 2007. What’s next is uncertain—perhaps work in the private sector, or academia. Or she might return to government work as an independent consultant. Her unique skill set and impressive list of contacts and accomplishments present many opportunities.

At Press Time: Peru was hit with a devastating earthquake that killed hundreds and spawned more than 400 aftershocks over the following 10 days.Toledo, her family and friends experienced the impact of these tremors but are safe.

“It’s really great to have a little time to step back and take a new perspective. I want to see where I can be most helpful next, in making connections between groups and helping people make decisions. I did not think that Peru or I could be in this position in five years!”

It was meant to be.

Diana Nelson T’90 is a writer and communications strategist living in Chapel Hill,N.C.,and St.Helena, Calif.